Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Back in Greece; Working in Athens

I've been back in Greece almost a week now after a three month stay back in San Francisco, but it already feels like much longer. I'm in Athens this time, rather than on Lesvos, working in a camp in the industrial neighborhood of Eleonas. It's an official government camp, with very little NGO presence--MSF pulled out not long ago over some dispute in the way the camp was operated--but a volunteer group called the Elea project works there trying to make the camp more livable for the residents. Currently there are about 1,500 people living in the camp, and another 750 in a different camp right next to it. The other camp is run by the military with no volunteer presence, but I've heard they're slated to be joined, and our population will include the second camp. I also heard that the wall between them will stay up, though. I don't know why. It seems counterproductive.

In many ways the camp is much better than either Moria, the official registration camp on Lesvos (now a detention center) where I worked, or the spillover, volunteer run, Better Days for Moria camp. If you've read earlier blogs you know that in Moria, housing consisted of overcrowded, tiny Ikea huts without electricity, and that housing at Better Days was in tents, also without electricity, though charging stations were available at both camps. But the electricity supplied shipping container houses at Eleonas are much nicer. They have private bathrooms afford some privacy to the residents. Many have beds with mattresses, though some are still sleeping on thin, yoga-style mats.

The geography of the camp is much different too. Instead of hilly, rocky, and muddy, the land is flat, graveled or paved, and dusty, and the flatness makes the area of the camp consequently seem much bigger. There is room for sports and biking, which the residents very much enjoy, although the women have asked for an area where they can play sports in relative privacy, and that might not be possible.

A few trees have been planted, but they provide no shade yet. A garden area is in the works, with herbs and flowers. I haven't seen or heard of any vegetables being planted yet, but food distribution here doesn't just consist of prepared meals but includes occasional bags of vegetables--potatoes, tomatoes, onions... as well as packages of bread at every meal. Since volunteers work only until 10:30 pm when we all have to leave the camp, breakfast is distributed with dinner. Everybody complains about the prepared meals, and they are far worse than those on Lesvos. When I did food distribution two days ago, the meal was potatoes in tomato sauce. Starchy foods like rice and potatoes are the staple. Meat is served once a week.

Other than the sports area and equipment, the volunteers have started a number of activities for the residents. I have been involved in a women's expression group, run by a young Spanish psychologist, henna night (where seven and ten year old Afghan refugees Shabanaz and Maida decorated my hands, and I decorated others), movie night (Kung Fu Panda--the kids loved it), and some game playing. There are also yoga and fitness classes, a bike workshop, a football tournament (that's soccer to my US readers), story time, and various other activities of the like. Some English classes just started for the children, but I haven't been involved yet. My main project, and the one I'm most excited about, at Eleonas will be setting up a library. Currently, though, the only container building we have access to for the library serves as a storage area for clothes and toys.

The weather is just beginning to cool a little, so winter clothes distribution will start soon, but clothing distribution in general is not an everyday task as it was on Lesvos. Here the refugees know they will be staying some time (though they all desperately want to move on) and there is space to do laundry. Clean wet clothes hang to dry between the rows of shipping container houses, some of which are beginning to reflect their inhabitants' aesthetics, with curtains, or a few plants. I have yet to be inside one, though Farah, a lovely Iranian woman, has invited me for tea any time. According to the ministry rules, we are only allowed to stay 15 minutes inside a refugee's home.

There are already toys floating around, but the Project Elea team is still trying to figure out an equitable way to distribute the toys that are in storage in our future library. Apparently, too, nobody wants to distribute the pile of donated Barbies. I understand their concerns, but if the decision were mine, I would go ahead and give them out. Unrealistic Barbie is not that big a deal compared to what these children have seen, and bringing them some happiness is important.

This post has taken me two days to write--yesterday I spent most of the day looking for an apartment--and now it's time to go to camp. I'll try to write more often. As always, thanks for reading, thanks for caring.